Sunday, March 10, 2013

Difficult Day in Dachau

We knew the time spent in Dachau would not be one that would provide us with a sense of happiness nor excitement. Instead, it would be an eye-opening experience -- a time of reflection.

Keith, our tour guide, was Irish. He was an archeologist with a strong interest in Third Reich history and all things Holocaust related. Short in stature, most of us towered over him; however, his knowledge of what occurred at Dachau was leaps and bounds higher than any of us. 
Arriving at the Dachau train station, we were informed that prisoners arrived at the same exact station more than 75 years ago. We waited for the bus to take us to the camp. Keith informed us that some tours prefer to walk because after the prisoners arrived through the station, they were made to walk 40 minutes to the camp. Throughout their walk, villagers were made by the Nazi's to come out of their homes, hurl food and other items at the prisoners, as well as insults. For fear that they may be pulled into the line if their insults were not harsh enough, villagers spewed hatred at those who passed by. 
At the entrance of the camp, Keith provided a short bit of history regarding the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, as well as how Dachau came to be. A camp solely for male prisoners, many who were political enemies in the beginning, it was made to house only 6,000. By the time of liberation in 1945, more than 30,000 men could be found in the camp. Also, Dachau was never meant to become an extermination camp. It was only in the years of the Final Solution [1942 - 1945] that the gas chamber and crematorium became of use. 

Standing on the same brick road that the commander walked on to enter the camp, we slowly made our way through the iron gate that read, "Arbeit Macht Frei," which means, "Work Makes One Free." To say it was chilling to step through this gate is an understatement. So many lives passed through here; however, for many, it was a one-way trip. 

Entering the camp, you see a large, massive area where roll call took place. Surrounded by barracks, every building was white and\or gray. Told that the guard towers were inaccessible to visitors, Keith reminded us that the only reason was because it was meant to experience the camp through the eyes of a prisoner, not a guard. It is to discourage anyone who may enjoy or exhibit feelings of power over made sense. As he spoke, I asked if any survivor had been on his tour. Answering that he had not, he did say that he once met a Hungarian man who had survived four camps during the war. His mother and sister were immediately taken to the gas chamber and he was examined by Dr. Josef Mengle himself. I immediately felt tears well up in my eyes. Having read about this infamous doctor of death, I knew of the experiments he performed, and the charismatic ways in which he portrayed himself. 

Our journey through the camp led us through the museum area, providing us with information about the Weimar Republic and the time from World War I to World War II, the rise of Nazism and Hitler himself, Nazi propaganda, and the beginnings of what we know as The Holocaust. In each room, Keith provided vivid detail of the occurrences, including the check-in, the dehumanization of the prisoners as they were made to shower and change into the blue and white work clothing, as well as the fear that possessed most prisoners upon entering some of these rooms. Many men would enter the shower area to see other men hanging with their hands and arms strung up [behind their backs]. A form of torture, these men could be heard screaming out in pain as their shoulders dislocated and the suffocation process began to occur. Guards would splash cold water on them, or slap them if they showed signs of passing was an image one cannot fathom. 

Shown a whipping post, prisoners were made to lie across the wooden plank and endure the beatings of not only a guard, but a soderkommando [a fellow prisoner who received special treatment for aiding guards in various ways: disposing of bodies, ashes, herding prisoners to the showers, etc... They met the same fate as many of their fellow inmates eventually]. A prisoner was made to count each blow and if they slurred their words or miscounted, the process would start from the beginning. Sometimes, the prisoner received up to 50 blows. 

With each room we entered, the feeling of hope grew lighter and lighter for me. Entering the barracks, we saw wooden bunks stacked three high. Although some had a ladder attached, prisoners were made to crawl over each other in order to get to their bunks. Ladders later became a luxury item and were not found on each set of bunks. What we learned is that as the prisoners grew more tired and lifeless, their abilities to make it to the bathroom grew more slim.  You can image the outcome for those on the lower bunks. 

Having seen the life of a prisoner through the camp, we entered the last phase of the tour -- the gas chamber and crematorium. Finding ourselves on what was called "The Death Ditch," Keith reminded us that prisoners were never allowed on this strip of land. Many committed suicide by stepping onto the area, knowing they would be shot. However, on liberation day, thousands could be seen standing along this strip of land, cheering and smiling. 

Passing four religious memorials: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Russian, we walked along a gravel pathway to a large, red, brick building, complete with a tall, daunting chimney. Informing us that he would wait outside for us, we entered the building, retracing the steps of those who would never leave Dachau.

First, we were met with the disinfecting room, complete with white walls and a long pipe along the ceiling. Next, we stood inside a large changing room where prisoners were made to disrobe. Our steps took us then into a large waiting room. This room sent chills as I could only image the fear that so many felt standing in this room, waiting for their fate. Next, the word "Brausebad" greeted us [It means "shower"]. Stepping inside, I looked up to see "shower heads" and a coldness grew over me. What these people must have felt...I can never imagine. The bodies that lay motionless after 15-20 minutes of struggle and pain. Leaving the chamber, we made our way into a large crematorium where oven doors stood open.

Leaving the building, I could not control my emotions. My mom walked ahead of me and went straight to a bench...she couldn't handle it. I found myself walking towards a small memorial with a menorah standing tall. A large, grassy area made up of ashes, complete with a cement marker, read, "Grave of Thousands Unknown." I broke down and wept as I stood before the final resting place of so many. 

At the end of our tour, Keith reminded us that it was not up to him to determine how we should think or feel, but instead, it was up to us to take what we had learned and seen and form our own conclusions. 

You read about the Holocaust in textbooks and watch it in movies, but neither can truly depict the horrors of war until you step inside a concentration camp. Human dignity and life was lost because of the power of one man. We can never image what these people really went through, but, I believe, it is our responsibility and duty as humans to visit and understand such places. Not only to make sure it never happens again, but to see the horrors of what one human can do to another. A statue stands outside the gas chamber at Dachau that translates roughly to something like "Remember those who died, warn the ones still living."


Kristen Allbritton said...

Nicole, you took me to Dachau with this entry. I can't imagine what it was like to see this camp and retrace the prisoners' steps. Iknow it was hard for you and Mom, but this is something every human should see.

Post a Comment